Jennifer Barton
December 2, 2020 // Bishop

‘Let perpetual light shine upon them’

Jennifer Barton

In the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the month of November ended as it began – in remembrance of those who lived in God’s light and have passed on into the next life.

More photos from the event are here.

At “An Evening of Heavenly Lights” on Sunday evening, Nov. 29, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades presided at a special prayer service. Luminarias, or small paper lanterns, purchased in memory of family members and friends who have died were lit and blessed by the bishop during the service.

Photos by Jennifer Barton
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades blesses the luminarias and those who came to pray for the souls of deceased family members and friends.

He pointed out the significance of light at the beginning of the Advent season. “The perpetual light is the light of heaven. It is the light of Christ, who, at Christmas, brought heaven to earth. He came to earth to enlighten us and to guide us to salvation. Jesus is the light of the world, the light that prevails over darkness, the light of good that overcomes evil, of love that overcomes hatred, and of life that overcomes death.”

White luminarias lined the walkways leading to the cathedral doors, their lights driving away the evening gloom and casting a reverent glow on the scores of people who gathered to pray. The luminaries were incorporated into the service because of an old tradition that states Mary and Joseph were led to the stable in Bethlehem by the lights of luminarias. The practice is reflected particularly in Hispanic culture, where luminarias are lit to welcome the Christ child.

Additionally, a special tree placed in front of the cathedral was lit at the event, with young Hannah Hastings throwing the switch to illuminate it. This tree will remain lit inside the cathedral throughout Advent, reminding all to continue praying for their loved ones. Hannah also helped fill the luminaria bags, prayerfully giving each person a candle of remembrance.

During his remarks, Bishop Rhoades gave a brief explanation of the Christmas tree in Catholic tradition.

“Though we might think of the Christmas tree as a secular symbol of Christmas, I invite you, when you put up your Christmas tree, to give it a Christian meaning in your home.” He went on to explain how St. Boniface, apostle to the Germans, purportedly gave Christian meaning to the fir tree when converting the Germanic peoples. In place of an ancient oak tree that the pagans held sacred, St. Boniface gave them the fir tree, explaining that its evergreen boughs represent eternal life, its triangular shape is reminiscent of the Trinity and its tip points toward heaven.

“May this Christmas tree and the lights and candles remind us of the great mystery we prepare to celebrate: the mystery of the Word who came down from heaven, who became flesh and dwelt among us, whose light the darkness cannot overcome.”

An attendee at “An Evening of Heavenly Lights” searches the luminarias lining the walkway at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fort Wayne, for her loved one’s name.

The reading for the service was taken from Ezekiel 17, which compares the restoration of the Davidic dynasty to the replanting of the humblest part of a cedar tree on a high mountain, thus pointing to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of God’s covenant. This idea, along with the lights of the tree, held great significance for the occasion.

Bishop Rhoades stated, “In John’s Gospel, darkness is a symbol for sin, the spiritual condition of alienation from God, and of death. The eternal Word who became flesh, Jesus, is the true light that the darkness does not overcome. … The love of God triumphs through Jesus’ death and resurrection.”

“The great truth of our faith can dispel the pessimism and despair that we might sometimes feel. It fills us with hope and joy. In this Advent season, even in the midst of a pandemic and in the midst of sorrow and grief at the death of loved ones, may we experience this hope and interior joy.”

The Bishop Dwenger High School choir provided recordings of their songs to be played for those in attendance, including beautiful renditions of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “People Look East.”

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades blessed Christmas tree ornaments bearing the names of the beloved dead, and many who attended said the event brought them strength to face the holiday season while still in mourning.

The prayer service was organized by Elisa Smith, parish auditor for the diocese. Smith knew from personally losing her father, grandfather and grandmother during past Christmastimes how difficult the holidays can be when dealing with the loss of a loved one. She wanted to find a way to help ease that pain in a Catholic manner.

“I noticed that secular organizations would hold memorial events around the holidays to remember the lives of deceased loved ones. However, for me, the Catholic or Christian aspect was lacking.” While working for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, she instituted an event in early December “whereby individuals and families could come together to remember and pray together for their loved ones.” She shared this idea with Bishop Rhoades, who was open to holding one in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

The name refers to a passage in the book of James that states that every blessing comes from “the Father of lights.” With the success of this year’s service, Smith and the bishop said they are eager to continue the tradition in the future.

Donations made for the luminarias went to support the mission of Catholic Charities. In total, 122 luminarias were donated.

Nancy Duffy, who had read about the event in Today’s Catholic, donated one in memory of her son, who had passed away 22 years ago. She stated that the event was “absolutely beautiful. The luminaries are so beautiful, and it was such a calm, peaceful time.” More than that, it gave her a feeling of hope.

Her good friend, Theresa Joy Burkett, also attended to honor her husband, Norman, who had passed away a short seven months earlier. Burkett helped hand out programs and Christmas tree ornaments to those who attended, radiating peace and joy despite her recent loss.

Whether it had been more than 20 years or less than one since the loss of a loved one, Smith said she believes the event and the bishop’s words gave a measure of peace to those in mourning. “With the pandemic, I think this prayer service brought comfort. When so many events have been canceled, this prayer service was one thing that people could still attend,” she remarked.

The evening proved to be an illuminating opportunity for evangelization as well. Smith related how it attracted a homeless man who said he had been looking for a place to pray and a church he might join. Also, during the evening’s setup, a young family who was walking past the church spotted three familiar names and took photos of the luminarias to send to family members of the deceased persons.

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